But revenge is, like almonds, best served at room temperature. Now the company is striking back at the FDA. On December 1, the makers of Kind bars filed a citizen petition—with the support of several prominent nutrition scientists, including the chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, Walter Willett—imploring the federal agency to redefine “healthy.”
The most immediate public-health concern surrounding the current definition of “healthy” is that it requires a food to be low in fat. This is consistent with the prevailing nutritional wisdom of 1985. Any food that contains more than four grams of fat (in the quantity “customarily consumed per eating occasion”) cannot, regardless of any other factors, be considered healthy.
The idea that “low fat” means “healthy” expired decades ago. Lumping all fatty acids together into one nutrient bucket and calling them “bad” or “good” is about as useful as doing so with children. Unless you are an immortal magical man with flying reindeer, don’t try it. Trans fat is the closest thing to categorically bad that exists in the world of nutrition, while omega-3 fatty acids are integral to the diets of the world’s longest-lived, healthiest populations. In addition to “at least seven glasses of wine per week,” the Mediterranean Diet makes staples of olives, fish, and nuts—many of which would not qualify as “healthy” by the outdated FDA definition.
At a time when more than four in 10 American adults has a preventable chronic disease related to poor diet, the petition from Kind et al. urges the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to update its policy as an urgent matter of public health. And as a matter of free speech, the group argues that the definition of healthy “prevents the dissemination of truthful and non-misleading information about the role of certain foods in maintaining healthy dietary practices in violation of the First Amendment.”
Instead of building a diet based on recommended levels of nutrients, the petition argues, the focus belongs on eating “certain foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes, and nuts and seeds, in achieving better health and wellness.”
That is all in accordance with the recommendations of the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, though it contrasts with the popular approach of the 1990s and 2000s. Until recently, experts emphasized levels of macronutrients—fat, carbohydrate, protein—rather than the collective effects of food-consumption patterns on health. They recommended nutrients rather than foods. The ultimate manifestation of this was the 2014 launching of the high-nutrient liquid-parchment Soylent.
The current FDA definition of “healthy” is another relic. “Many current federal labeling regulations are based upon this past thinking,” the petition argues, in this case because they “exclude an entire category of foods that is recommended in the dietary guidelines—nuts—from bearing such a claim because nuts are not low in fat.”